Lefty Loosey, Righty Tighty: Sociologists Try To Explain The Political Orientation Of The Academy

January 18, 2010, 1:18 pm

In Professor Is A Label That Leans To The Left, New York Times reporter Patricia Cohen reports on a new study by sociologists Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse that reaffirms the liberalism of university faculties. However, says Cohen, “critics may have been asking the wrong question. Instead of looking at why most professors are liberal, they should ask why so many liberals — and so few conservatives — want to be professors.”

Putting aside for now the issue of what might be the right question (like why most people read about scholarship in the newspaper rather than reading scholarship), Gross and Fosse point out that conservatives may not see university teaching as consonant with their image as conservatives; nor do conservatives see university careers as the best use of their time and ideas. Beginning with William F. Buckley’s God and Man At Yale (1954), conservatives have consistently articulated their ideas as a critique of the university. Hence, when you look at two people who graduated in 1980 from Oligarch university, were part of the same circle of friends, and subsequently took Ph.D.s in history, the conservative chose to become a foreign policy advisor in the Reagan administration, a campaign advisor to John McCain, and a popular foreign policy writer and activist; the other became a tenured radical.

Which one do you think has had the most influence on the course of history? Hopefully, both of them will be attending the 30th reunion this June and they can debate that question.

Gross and Fosse’s argument is, well, highly sociological: people tend to join the group that reflects their values. Choice and corporate identity, rather than institutional discrimination and liberal disdain for conservative ideas, play the most crucial roles in making the academy a bastion of liberalism. As Cohen characterizes their views:

Nearly half of the political lopsidedness in academia can be traced to four characteristics that liberals in general, and professors in particular, share: advanced degrees; a nonconservative religious theology (which includes liberal Protestants and Jews, and the nonreligious); an expressed tolerance for controversial ideas; and a disparity between education and income.

In other words, liberals are more interested in staying in school than in getting out there and doing something; are more secular; and don’t correlate job satisfaction with the economic rewards attached to it. Because future college professors are more liberal, they seek out a workplace that supports a liberal praxis.

The only piece of this research that does not conform to well-known conservative stereotypes of your typical liberal college faculty member is the “expressed tolerance for controversial ideas.” In fact, this strikes me as something that is more or less at odds with a form of intolerance that is implicit in the study’s findings: a preference for laboring in a work place where actual conflict over those ideas is, with a few exceptions, characteristically muted. In fact, intolerance for religion, classical Western texts, and the core ideas cherished by movement conservatism is supposedly one of the hallmarks of the liberal college professor, a stereotype which is sometimes true. The original study would be well worth looking up to see if the authors have more to say about this.

One final comment: while Gross and Fosse may attach some hard data to an endless (and possibly pointless) debate about the political orientation of college faculties, their study appears to ignore numerous, and perhaps more interesting, questions. For example: what exactly do we mean when we say that university professors are liberal? If they are, why does it matter, given the fact that the United States has steered politically and culturally to the right over the course of the last four decades? Why is the analysis of race, class, gender and sexuality perceived as controversial half a century after the academy became marginally open to these fields of study, but topics like market-based reasoning, the Book of Leviticus and individualism are not perceived as controversial? Given the diversity of what constitutes conservative thought, and the serious conflicts within modern conservatism, what precisely are critics asking for when they claim to desire more “inclusion” for conservatives? And what exactly is not conservative about a profession where its aspirants are held to a model of professional development and workplace discipline that has not fundamentally changed sinced 1880?

For more bloggy buzz on this study, see Any Poorer Than Dead; Inside Higher Ed; and Mississippi Learning.

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